And I Owe it all to Sterling Brown: The Theory and Practice of Black Literary Studies

by Fahamisha Patricia Brown
And I Owe it all to Sterling Brown: The Theory and Practice of Black Literary Studies
Fahamisha Patricia Brown
African American Review
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And I Owe It All to Sterling Brown: The Theory and

Practice of Black Literary studies

In March 1989, the African Literature Association was meeting in Dakar, Senegal. The sessions had ended for the day, and several of us were sittingin the lobby bar of the Novotel talking as we waited for our drinks. Conversation turned to some who were not at the meeting, some whom we'd been expecting to see. Someone mentioned Sam Allen, a fellow resident of the Boston area where I was then teaching. "How is he? Is he well?" "The last time I saw him Gas at Sterling Brown's funeral." "It's hard to imagine a world without Sterling Brown in it," mused a colleague from Cameroon by way of Paris. As he spoke these words, the waiter began to pour whiskey into my glass and spilled a few drops. "So sorry," he whispered. "It's a libation," said the Nigerian poet, "a libation for Sterling Brown." "Ashe," we responded. When we call out the names of our revered and honored ancestors, they are with us. Sterling Allen Brown, the poet-teacher-scholar-critic-anthologist-bon vivant and raconteur, is an untapped resource and an undercredited father of Black literary and cultural studies. Situating his analyses of African American cultural production squarely within his discussions of American cultural production, Brown anticipated many of today's most "fashionable" critical approaches. Brown was "reading" American culture through the lens of race before it was fashionable. Just as he argued for folk and vernacular expression as art, not anthropology, Brown also argued for standards of excellence and truth in both academic and popular cultural criticism. Finally, in devoting his life to classroom teaching, he enriched the lives of countless students and mentored several generations of scholars. Brown unknowingly mentored me in my early graduate school days at Loyola University in Chicago and remains a model for me. He stands as my ancestor in this profession of ours, the very model of an engaged and committed teacher and scholar. His earliest work, the 1931 Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes, inspired me to produce an "Outline for the Study of Poetry of the African World" in 1971, when I taught my first course in Black Poetry. Similarly, when I designed a survey course in African American literature in 1970, I turned to the Negro Caravan for guidance in structuring my course. The gener- ic categories of Negro Caravan provided me with organizational tools for my work. From the beginning, I included folklore and oratory as essential categories or genres in any discussion in Black literary studies. Sterling Brown subsequently would provide me with the building blocks for other courses, Introduction to Black Theater and The Black Presence in American Literature.

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 3 0 1997 Fahamisha Patricia Brown

Fahamisha Patricia

teaches in the De~artmentof Enalish at


Fordham University.

Even earlier, while I was still a graduate student, it was Sterling Brown who provided me with the vocabulary for critical analysis of the novels I was reading in a course on the Modern American Novel: The South. The year was 1969. Atheneum had reis- sued Brown's 1937 studies Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction. Brown had also recently published an essay entitled "A Century of Negro Portraiture in American Literature" (1966). His dis- cussions of racial stereotypes, the plan- tation tradition, and abolitionist and social realist writings enabled me to write an A seminar paper on enduring stereotypes. He also caused me to rethink the ways in which American literature had been and was being pre- sented in the academy. At the time, my declared area of academic concentra- tion was modern American poetry. That spring I also took my master's degree qualifying examinations, dropped out of graduate school, and began to teach at the City Colleges of Chicago, Malcolm X Branch-but that's another story. More recently, upon my return to graduate school to complete my long-delayed Ph.D., Brown's ideas again provided a way of organizing my ideas for a course paper on reading race in the modern American novel. And when seeking out poems to illus- trate points in my dissertation on Black Poetry and Black Vernacular Culture- uses of the mother tongue, voice, song/talk, preachment, boast, and toast-I kept turning for examples to Sterling A. Brown's collected poems.

Robert Bone, a man I never expect- ed to see myself citing authoritatively, in his 1969 introduction to the Atheneum reprints of Sterling Brown's studies of poetry, drama, and fiction, describes these 1937 texts as "compre- hensive surveys in the field of iconog- raphy, tracing through American fic- tion, poetry and drama the changing image of the Negro" (ii). Bone sings the praises of Sterling Brown as a "poet, anthologist and co-editor, critic, teacher . . .a man [with a] not inconsid- erable gift as anecdotist and raconteur, humorist and mime, jazz buff, and blues collector. . . a living witness" (iii). Further, he cites Brown as a schol- ar who "kept the faith when blackness was unfashionable, on [whose] pio- neering efforts all future scholarship in the field of Afro-American studies will be compelled to build (iv; emphasis mine).

I maintain that our lives as literary scholars who specialize in work by African Americans as well as by writ- ers of Africa and other parts of the diaspora would find our work more difficult if we did not have the work of Sterling Brown on which to build. As an intellectual ancestor of contempo- rary Black Literary Studies, Brown has given us a vocabulary and a methodol- ogy. Contemporary discussions of issues of representations of Black char- acters in novels, plays, films, television programs, and music videos all return to Brown's categories of mammies, contented slaves, buffoonish clowns or coons, brutish or rebellious bucks, and tragically conflicted or tragically noble mulattoes. The sweep of Brown's sur- veys, from the beginnings of American cultural production to the time of his writings, is astonishing. Sterling Brown simply read everything. He has given us a host of texts to which we might profitably return and re-examine, grouped by such categories as genre, region, race, and gender. One of Brown's gifts is that he read texts by Blacks apart from, yet as a part of, American literature and culture. (Not so incidentally, Brown provides strong evidence in refutation of the assertion "All the Blacks are men, all the women are white." At a 1974 Black History Month reading at the Boston Public Library, Brown enthusiastically read several poems which introduced an audience to the work of one of my favorite writers, Anne Spencer.) Brown examines Black- and white-authored texts by both male and female writers. His study encompasses the literary canon and writers of popular mass market fiction, such as the historical


novel and the detective story. He paid attention to the then-new wbrld of film as well. Sterling Brown's critical writ- ings remain essential reading for American studies, cultural studies, African American studies, and genre studies scholars.

Brown's insistence on contextualiz- ing literature in its historical, social, and political contexts is prescient:

. . . one of our purposes is to show how attitudes toward Negro life have developed in American thinking. . . . we hope to pass in review an impor- tant segment of the Negro's literary life and of the influence of Negro life in American literature. (Poetry and Drama 2-3)

As a student, scholar, and per- former of Black poetry, I have found in the work of Sterling A. Brown a subject of study, a critical resource, and a body of texts which translate to the stage to the delight of varied audiences. Although Brown's poetry is not the subject of this discussion, I would be remiss if I did not point out how well Brown's poems exemplify his theory. His portraits of Black folk, his tall tales and ballads, his music, and his talk, with its irony, exaggeration, hyperbole, wit, and sophistication, exemplify the suggestions he made for a Negro American literary expression.

Brown's insistence that folk poetry is a living tradition that coexists with the written tradition, not as a collection of obsolete forms, is a thesis which informs my own discussions of vernac- ular and Black poetry. Elsewhere, Brown asserts a tradition of romantic tendencies in Black poetry which deserves further exploration. Again, Brown's descriptions of the characteris- tics of New Negro Poetry provide a useful framework in which to compare that body of work with the New Black Poetry of the late sixties and early sev- enties:

(1)a discovery of Africa as a source for race pride,

(2) a use of Negro heroes and heroic

episodes from American history, (3)propaganda or protest,

(4)a treatment of the Negro masses (fre- quently of the folk, less often of the workers with more understanding and less apology), and

(5)franker and deeper self-revelation. (Negro Poetry and Drama 61)

These themes are still a useful starting point in an exploration of the poetry of the New Negro and the New Black Arts Movement. His assessment of the poetry of the time (1914-1936), which must have included his own. summa- rized the state of the art:

The contemporary poets, even when writing subjective lyrics, are more frankly personal, less restrained, and as a general rule, less conventional . . . but one of the cardinal lessons of mod- ern poetry is that the poet should express his own view of life in his own way . . . more irony in it than buffoon- ery . . . the tragic as well as the pitiful . . . much closer to the true folk prod- uct than to the minstrel song.

The reading world seems to be ready for a true interpretation of Negro life from within. . . . What it means to be a Negro in the modern world is a revelation much needed in poetry. (79-80)

Brown's concluding examination of "White Poets of Negro Life" possi- bly provided the impetus for the inclu- sion of a section of "Tributary Poems by Non-Negroes" when Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps compiled their 1946 anthology The Poetry of the Negro. "A great deal of this portraiture is valuable socially and some is poeti- cally outstanding," Brown wrote of such work. "Abolitionary humanitari- anism, idealization of the 'Noble Savage,' minstrel buffoonery, proslav- ery argument, local-color, realism, social protest, and racial propaganda" were some characteristic elements Brown noted in these poems (102). By including discussions of such work, Brown paved the way both for future anthologists such as Hughes and Bontemps and, more recently, Komunvakaa and Feinstein, in their jazz anthologies. ~dditionally, Brown anticipates such studies as Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark. In short, Sterling Brown was exploring


the Black presence in American litera- Finally, Brown's discussion of the ture long before it was fashionable. Federal Theater Project notes the

Similarly Brown anticipated the importance of government support of August Wilson-Robert Brustein the arts as a vehicle for both the support debates in his discussion of American of the work of Black playwrights and drama. When one of my first-year the development of a Black audience English students (white and male) (141-42). This is the stuff of the nightly asked me why there isn't a movie or a news, academic and artistic confer- video based on the ences, and think tanks. Narrative of the Life of hi^ is my way In fie Negro in Frederick Douplass, he was American Fiction and "A echoing sterlYng ~rown's of pouring a Century of Negro 1937 assertion that "vast libation for Portraiture," Brown pro- areas of Negro experience vides us with names and and character remain unex- Sterling Allen texts by American women plored" (138). "The life of Brown, whom writers whom the Feminist middle class Negroes," Press has not yet discov-

I willforever

Brown wrote in Negro ered. He introduces us, as I Poetrv and Drama, claim as a indicated earlier, to popular i writers, including wkitkrs of

with its comedy and tragedy,

historical novels, detective

its quieter heroism as well as its frantic striving, remains ancesf or in fiction, and sentimental

~ ",

scarcely touched. . . . the dra- romances. He raises issues

my chosen

matic possibilities of the

of violence, urbanization,

south have [hardly] been profession. exoticization,standards of

fully realized. A deeper reve- lation of the folk . . . is like- wise waiting. Drama of the struggles of the working class is just starting to be written. The exploits of Negro histo- ry furnish a mine for the dramatist [or film maker, we might add]. (139-40)

Further, he wrote, "Broadway. . . is still entranced with the stereotypes of the exotic primitives, the comic stooge and the tragic mulatto" (139).(Brown's explorationof stereotypes here and elsewhere is seminal to contemporary discussions of revresentations of Blacks and ~lackness inl~mericanculture.)

Brown's call for a "Negro Theater" predates the 1960s' proponents of a New Black Theater: ". . . without a the- atre for apprenticeship in their craft, Negro playwrights are sorely handi- capped. Without their own audience, they are doubly handicapped." (August Wilson would surely agree with Sterling Brown on this point.) Further, Brown asserts, "There is a Neero theatrical tradition, that of the solg and dance show, with blackface skits interspersed" (140). Henry Louis Gates's discussion of the beautv varlor

J l

and gospel play circuit might fit com- fortably within Brown's paradigm.

beauty, representations of the body-all the "hot stuff" of contem- porary criticism. His discussions of anti-slavery fiction, the urban scene, and Southern realism are useful to a critic confronted with contemporary films set during the Civil ~i~hts

era. I was reminded of Sterling Brown's explorations of the Plantation Tradition in American literature and culture when I watched a recent Miss USA pageant of television as the contestants, including at least six Black women, dressed in their finery, wandered the grounds of a Louisiana plantation.

I would argue that Brown's class- room practice, as well as his habit of inviting his students to his home for "field study," was at the basis of this early cultural criticism. The immediacy of Brown's scholarship appears rooted in his self-identification as "Prof." As a poet, he was a teacher. As a critic, he was a teacher. As an anthologist, he was a teacher. His twin eoals of under-


standing and appreciation of his sub- ject matter on the part of his students/ readers or audience vrovides us with a

an engaged scholar. The half

told. However, this less-


than-comprehensive survey provides claim as "cousin" when he walked the some indication of the ways in which streets of Washington, D.C.-all us the oeuvre of Sterling Brown informs Browns are related somehow, don't contemporary Black Literary Studies. It you know-but whom I will forever is also my way of pouring a libation for claim as a revered ancestor in my cho- Sterling Allen Brown, whom I used to sen profession.

Bone, Robert A. "Introduction." Brown, Negro Poetry i-iv. Works Brown, Sterling A. "A Century of Negro Portraiture." 1966. Black Voices. Ed. Abraham Chapman. Cited

New York: Mentor, 1968. 564-89. -, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, eds. The Negro Caravan. 1941. New York: Arno 1969. -. Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction. New York: Atheneum: 1969.


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